Revolutionaries from a century ago

Source: This article was written by Tahir Kamran and originally published in The News on Sunday (TNS), online edition on September 21, 2014

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Source: This article was written by Tahir Kamran and originally published in The News on Sunday (TNS), online edition on September 21, 2014

Source url:

A few weeks ago Dr Pippa Verdi, a historian of the Punjab from the University of De Montford, brought the people of her trade to reminisce about the hundredth anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident in Vancouver.
Immediately after reading her e-mail, the question that cropped up in my mind was the relevance of that incident for Pakistanis. Pakistani students of history are not even bothered about the ideology and organisation of the Ghadar party which had a considerable influence on those in the vanguard of the Komagata Maru incident.

Both the Ghadar Party and the hundred year-old incident are considered to be exclusively founded and orchestrated by the Sikhs, and Muslim support for them was just nominal if not absolutely negligible. Thus its importance is not more than a mere note in the margin for us. Abdul Hafiz Mohamed Barakatullah Bhopali (1854-1927) and then Ubaidullah Sindhi (1872-1944) were among a few of the Muslims who were overtaken by the Ghadarite revolutionary sentiment which strangely enough was lumped with pan-Islamism.

Maia Ramnath in her brilliant work Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire considers both of them along with Mushir Hussain Qidwai as Ghadarite. In her estimation, Ghadar movement and the way it had spread out in different parts of the world resembled uncannily with Pan-Islamism. The difference was Ghadar’s multi-communal appeal and orientation in contrast to any religious movement. Thus these individuals, steeped in Muslim scholastic tradition, felt no qualms in throwing their lot with the Ghadar Party. Therefore in my opinion they could provide some link between Pakistani practitioners of history and political studies and the revolutionary movement, which is otherwise perceived as a Sikh affair.

In order to provide context to Barakatullah’s role as an anti-British revolutionary and supposedly one of the founders of Ghadar Party, it is imperative to first give a brief introduction to the Komagata Maru incident and then to furnish some reflection on the Ghadar Party’s ideology.

The incident involved a Japanese steamship named Komagata Maru that sailed from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chinato in Japan to Vancouver in Canada in 1914, carrying 376 passengers from the Punjab. The ship was chartered by Sardar Gurdit Singh from Singapore, in order to circumvent the Canadian regulation that any would-be Asiatic immigrant should be in possession of 200 dollars and should have travelled by a continuous journey on a through ticket from his native country. 24 were admitted to Canada but the other 352 passengers were not allowed to land, and the ship was forced to return to India by the Canadian authorities on July 23, 1914.

The passengers consisted of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus, all British subjects. This was one of the several incidents in the history of early 20th century involving exclusion laws in both Canada and the United States which were designed to keep out the immigrants of Asian origin. Obviously, the passengers were extremely bitter and their temper was aggravated by the revolutionary influence of Ghadar party members, some of whom travelled back to India on the Komagata Maru. By the time the ship reached Indian shores, World War 1 had started and the authorities did not allow the passengers to land at any other port and ordered them to proceed to Calcutta.

Upon entry into the harbour, the ship was stopped by a British gunboat, and the passengers were placed under guard. The government of the British Raj saw the men on the Komagata Maru not only as self-confessed lawbreakers, but also dangerous political agitators. When the ship docked at Budge Budge, the police went to arrest Gurdit Singh and the 20 or so other men that they saw as leaders. He resisted arrest, a friend of his assaulted a policeman and a general riot ensued. Shots were fired and 19 of the passengers were killed. Some escaped, but the remainder were arrested and imprisoned or sent to their villages and kept under village arrest for the duration of the First World War. This incident became known as the Budge Budge Riot.

The episode sent a wave of bitterness towards the British Government throughout the Punjab, and made Punjabis settled abroad more prone to the Ghadar party’s propaganda. Party workers were asked to go back to India and work among the villages. With this end in view, they waged “war on the British”. The declaration was published in the mouthpiece of the party, Ghadar (which was being published in Urdu along with Gurmukhi from Yugantar Ashram) of August 5, 1914 under the heading Allane-Jang. Responding to the call from the headquarters, which were in San Francisco, Ghadarites started coming to India from different routes.

Before going any further, a brief background to the emergence of Ghadar Party will be quite pertinent.
Following the famine, plague and consequent economic difficulties sprouting from land alienation and money lending, many Punjabi peasants emigrated to the Far East, Canada and the US to improve their economic lot. In response to the initial influx of the Punjabis (mostly Sikhs), the Canadian authorities placed restrictions not only on any further immigration of Indians but also on the families of the early settlers. Then they had to encounter racial discrimination at the hands of the white workers in Canada as well as in the US. They figured out the reason for that humiliation was because they hailed from a country which was not free. Thus some of them resolved to do whatever they could towards the liberation of their country. Hence, Jawala Singh, Sohan Singh Bhakana and Lala Hardayal founded the “Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast” in May 1913 at Portland Oregon.

According to some accounts, Barakatullah was one of the founders of the Ghadar party in 1913, but it is more credible that he joined the Ghadar Party in 1914 when he sailed from Yokohama (Japan) to the US with someone by the name of Bhagwan Singh, “just in time to address Komagata Maru passengers”. Immediately afterwards, Barakatullah left the US for Germany but he kept the standard of Ghadar Party aloft from other regions. Here it is appropriate to devote some space to map the life sketch and the ideal that he endeavoured to achieve all his life.

(To be concluded)

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